Sermon for the Sunday before Advent, November 26, 2017
“Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.”
WHAT’S IN YOUR BASKET? What we carry with us says a lot about us. This last Friday was dubbed Black Friday, for the black ink hoped for by retailers in anticipation of financial gain just before Christmas. It was a shopping day for many who went in hopes of financial shrewdness over those retailers by taking advantage of their sale prices. What was in a shopping basket might say a lot about the shopper, more than about the person he or she was shopping for. Or were they just shopping for themselves? The idea of gift-giving at Christmas has been eclipsed by a mad dash for expensive toys and tools, for one day a little less expensive. It’s not America’s best day.
What’s in your basket? Wire baskets are pushed around town by homeless people, carrying all their worldly possessions. The baskets are stolen from stores and were meant for store customers, but are now symbols of a kind of sad, low-level piracy. Many of them get left in back of this church, empty for the most part, having carried things this far, but are no longer needed.
A basket made of wicker, willow wands, wood strips or grasses is a happy and hopeful image to us. Easter is basket time, and we may fill ours with plastic grass and Easter eggs, candy and chocolate bunnies in celebration of Spring and of Christ’s Resurrection. Baskets come filled with wine, fine food products, fruit and exciting gifts. We all get rather a lot of baskets over the years, and our garage cabinets get topped with the many baskets of gifts once given.
I vainly tried to weave baskets as a child. Mine fell apart. But the idea was fun. We see baskets woven by ancient people of many cultures in museums, some with intricate patterns and pictures on the sides. They have many uses. They carry food, clothing, and even children. We use wicker creels to carry freshly caught fish. A baker once told Joseph his dream of bread that he’d baked for Pharaoh and carried it in a basket on his head, but birds came and ate it. It meant the baker was to lose his head.
A basket once carried the hope of Israel, the baby Moses, set in a basket sealed with pitch to make it float, and launched out on the Nile toward the daughter of Pharaoh. Moses later led the people out of Egypt, and to the verge of taking their promised land. He gave them instruction not to depart from the ways of God. “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings … Your towns and fields will be blessed. Your children and your crops. The offspring of your herds and flocks. Your fruit baskets and breadboards will be blessed. Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be blessed.” Deut 28:1-6 However, if the people wouldn’t listen to the Lord God, curses instead of blessings would fall on them, their towns, farms, fruit baskets, breadboards, children, crops, herds: “Wherever you go and whatever you do, you will be cursed.” Ibid 28:19
So, baskets can carry anything, wanted and unwanted, good or bad, showing the character of who carries them. A basket even saved St. Paul, as a plot to murder him in Damascus came to be known to his followers and they lowered him over the city wall secretly in a large basket. Acts 9
We’ve all been working 11 months this year. What we may have to show for it may encourage or discourage us. Some seasons we may work like crazy, and appear to yield very little for our efforts. Our baskets may hold meager returns. And yet look: we are alive. We have not died. Starvation is almost unheard of in our land. We have clothing. We have one another. We have had many things pass through these baskets and we’ve used them, sold them, given some away. It’s not the having of things that is important, for having them is often to say we store them because right now we have no immediate use for them. People with packed storage units have two problems: the monthly rental for the units, and too much stuff to fit into their dwellings.
The richest people on earth are not those who die with the most toys. Those folks were out shopping for themselves last Friday, but they missed the point. Our riches are not counted in money, for money is just potential, not actual value. What we do for others, with others, unto others—what we put in our baskets to give others from our baskets—makes us truly wealthy.
Ebenezer Scrooge learned this lesson precisely in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. All his stored wealth only made him unhappy, suspicious and miserly. When he learned the joy of giving, it changed his heart forever. He almost died the poorest man in London, whose quarters would be picked over by ungrateful debtors and all his coins dispersed by those he despised. Now he would be toasted as the richest man alive, richer by far than others, for the love he gave and the love of others toward him.
Giving and receiving are part of the miracle Christ made with five barley loaves and two small dried fish. All four Gospels give an account of the feeding of five thousand. A boy was carrying five loaves and a couple fish in a basket. Jesus thought that should be enough to feed the multitude, over the doubtful words and disbelief of his disciples. He ordered everyone to be seated, to arrange themselves in companies so that someone might measure the miracle. 5,000 was the count. He began.
Now, Jesus might have fed just his immediate followers, if the lad were generous enough to part with his lunch, but instead He blessed the food and instructed them to give it all away. Break it, part here, part there, keep going. It wasn’t long before they recognized what was happening. As they gave it away, it only grew larger in their hands. Break one loaf, and you get three loaves. Break them again, and ten broken loaves are passed on. As the people broke their portions, the bread gained size and number, and there was no limit to the expansion of this wonder. As they ate, more bread was in each of their hands. The two fish were broken in halves, and again more fish came into the hands of those who had doubted. Everyone ate fish that day, 5,000 portions, and still there was fish left over.
Jesus ordered that the leftovers be gathered up. The miracle ceased as people gave up the overage. 12 baskets filled with extra bread and fish came back to the Lord.
Later, Jesus would recount this miracle and one later where seven loaves of bread fed 4,000 people, yielding 7 baskets of bread left over. Five fed 5,000 and brought twelve. Seven fed 4,000 and brought seven. I don’t think it’s a math problem, but I do notice something. The proportion of faith in the larger miracle was larger enough to gather more from less, and the lesser miracle gained less over and above. I’m not sure that’s important, but Jesus did this more than once. And large baskets were needed to hold what was left, and to carry it for later meals.
Live to get and you get enough, yet you want more. We live in such a consumer-driven culture that even church is sold as a consumer product. Who has the best music, the best youth program, the best parking, seating, sound system, messages, and even fame? If last year’s sermons seemed better than the ones preached last week, we may go looking for another church. Or stay home and watch TBN. Live in a way that feeds only you, and you will always be disappointed. Your basket is always empty. No miracles have come your way. Where is God when I need Him?
Live for love, and give freely of yourself – I’m not talking of money here, but of time and care and an open hand to help – and you want nothing. You will see the miracle of multiplication passing through your hands. ‘I did so little for her, and offered only small encouragement, but she took it to heart and her eyes were raised upward, and she’s so thankful toward me. I didn’t know it would do so much.’
We could try for a consumer church here. Studies show that taking out these old fashioned pews, abandoning the altar, getting a drum set and electronic keyboard for Jack, my electric guitar, Deacon Faith on vocals, Dyrk Posey on bass, some female ‘ooooo’ singers and clothing from the urban casual store Buckle could update this place admirably. We might do skits. Advertise and modernize and go online – what are we waiting for?
I don’t think we’re waiting to update, upgrade, upload, or upbeat St. Augustine of Canterbury. We’re waiting for us all to show up, look up, be thankful, and find out where we need to give of ourselves. What’s in our basket? What is it there for? How has God specially gifted us to be benefactors to a hungry Chico, California? Food is plentiful already, so it’s not the coffee hour snacks, although I’d like to know you are all bringing something when you can. You receive, but do you share from your store of spiritual blessings? How do you do that?
I’m the professional religious guy. I wear the collar all week and have titles and robes and now a hat. That covers those bases, with great help from our deacons. So, what am I asking here? I’m not sure. But God develops ministry in places where His word is studied and expounded on. We have weekly Bible study groups and we’ve always encouraged you to come and participate. It’s not an extra. It’s where Jesus is blessing the bread and handing it out to disciples. It’s where we may listen to God and listen to you, finding out what might be your own special gift. It’s in Bible study where we’ve learned the calling God has for people.
You may say we don’t have a school of ministry, a school of miracles, a school of prophecy, or a school of worship like a mega-church has. But I say, Oh yeah? Ministry, miracles, prophecy and worship are normal here. I train future ministers almost every year, and they go on to be deacons and priests elsewhere. What more is in our baskets? Just look and ask God.
Oh, we’re too small a congregation to do any good. One might say that. I remember five barley loaves and a crowd. And what was in their baskets when the meal was through?
Scarcity is a state of mind only. Abundance starts with an attitude of gratitude. Your basket is only full if you are willing to see others benefit from what God gives through you. It’s only empty when we disbelieve in His abundant blessings.
A belated Thanksgiving Blessing to you all. I hope your baskets of joy, good food and fellowship were fulfilling, and not just in turkey. Let’s enter the Advent season next Sunday anticipating Christmas without regard to black ink or red ink, but with the reckless generosity of a vast, unlimited God who loves us and loves all people.